Ah Sangarmaal!

It has been 5 years since SDA threw open valley’s first mega sized mall in Srinagar. But rather than becoming a must-visit place for shoppers it is lost in obscurity. Reason? Shakir Mir talks to stakeholders to find out

Sangarmaal-Complex

Few weeks ago, the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, Asghar Samoon pulled up his motorcade at Munawarabad Link Road, for a scheduled inspection of one of Srinagar Development Authority’s flagship project: Sangarmaal City Centre. As soon as Samoon, who held additional charge of VC, SDA back then, set his first step inside, a faulty entry – a small iron frame adorned tackily with a synthetic grass rug – greeted him. A gentle stroll around the premises followed. The official in question turned irate at the sight of tiles coming off and fountains not working properly.  Soon, one by one the skeletons of mismanagement started tumbling out of the closet.

Few yards away, Blue-green algae had flourished in water that was logged at main passageway near the second gate, giving the fuming examiner an insight into how “cleanliness” had been. A dog growled in the earshot further heating up the ambience. A suspension order followed. After one more round of inspection, the angry official slid into his car and left.

Five years into its ceremonial inauguration, the Sangarmaal Shopping Complex has been routinely a subject of controversies and bad press resulting in decrease of visitor footfall to a mere trickle and losses worth crores.

Built on a sprawling area of 7,00,000 sq.ft, the complex was inaugurated in 2010 amid massive fanfare and glowing praises for its structure syncretizing modern design with traditional Kashmiri architecture and “marvelous” escalators and lifts. Real estate landscape of Kashmir had just gotten an icing on the cake, the word was spread.

The Aggrieved Traders

When SDA released the official brochures some seven years ago outlining details about ambitious Shopping Complex, 40-year-old Rouf Ahmad was among many aspiring proprietors who were lured towards the “chimera”.

“They promised me an Audi and then handed me the keys of Maruti 800,” claims Rouf while analogizing his situation.

In brochure, the architectural plan promised a wholesome complex comprising of six modules (A, B, C, D, E1, E2), a Food Court, Craft Bazaar and a Multiplex.

The Multiplex, in particular, was christened as key crowd-puller and the USP of the entire facility incorporating theatre which would accommodate 158 persons per show, Health club (1548 sq.ft), Art Gallery (946 sq.ft), Cyber café (840 sq.ft), and much more. In fact, the project, conceived during the ebbing years of political insurgency, was purposely contemplated as cinema-oriented given the fact valley had robust cine culture before turbulence hit in 90’s.

The master plan was so appealing that the then State Minister Tara Chand refused to show up for inauguration unless a mall of a similar scale wasn’t gifted to Jammu as well.

It were promises like these that enticed Rouf who took out a loan of Rs 90 lakhs and invested capital for purchasing a shop inside the Module A of the complex.

But the day Rouf threw open his store, he says, he was caught by surprise. No structure had been raised in the Module where the proposed Multiplex was to come up and worse still, the piece of land was in possession with the Estates.

Rouf is not alone to have experienced this “disappointment”. Yusuf, 43, (name changed) narrates somewhat similar tale. Yusuf had acquired a space inside the complex through bidding process. He paid Rs 21,000 per sq.ft of area as against Rs 13,000 that was initially offered before the space went to auction. The bidding process is reported to have attracted highest ever investment any project in the region had ever seen. However, SDA maintains that it was fierce competition posed by the bidders themselves that resulted in price hike. “We had offered fair prices initially,” an official tells Kashmir Life.

Given the promising nature of the project, Yusuf became willing to shell out this huge amount. “You see in Delhi, there are these two malls side by side; the DLF and Select Citywalk. The former is always crowded with the visitors while latter has failed,” he coughs. “Select Citywalk has all the facilities like multiplex, children amusement park and health clubs that draw crowd which is why it is a success. I thought we would see a repetition of Select Citywalk but that was not to be.”

The signs of official chaos, the shop-owners allege, were visible from first day only when SDA, allegedly under pressure from higher-ups, asked shopkeepers to hasten the inauguration process. Even as their shops weren’t even fully ready, the owners were allegedly asked to set things superficially in order so that inauguration could go through.

Making matters worse, on the same day, the then Minister of State for Tourism Nasir Aslam Wani got stuck in the complex’s elevator that shut down abruptly following technical snag. It was only when the technicians pulled apart the doors manually that he was rescued out. “The elevators aren’t functioning ever since,” says Yusuf with a mix of humour and remorse. When visitors saw this shabby state of affairs, they stopped coming. That’s precisely when the project started drawing close to failure, he opines.

The Complex Blame-Game

The complex was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. “No one was pressured for the inauguration. The mall wasn’t fully complete at that time,” says an official from the authority. “We told them to start businesses and whatever facilities you required, we will provide free of cost like electricity and security,” the official pauses before adding a parting comment that, “Lifts are working properly today, by the way.”

According to official figures, SDA invested Rs 18.50 crores for raising the structure (excluding the cost of land). Interestingly many structures mentioned in the brochure are yet to come up. The original master plan also envisaged the main entry from M A Road side, a key thoroughfare that cuts through the city centre. Given the fact that the road remains abuzz with traffic and commuters, it was believed that Complex would register a brisk footfall. “We have taken up the issue with Estates in whose possession is the land that would make entry from the road possible,” SDA officials say while assuring that the matter would be resolved in a week or so. “The CM has personally intervened in the matter.” SDA could not do it in the last five years because the land housed residences of some senior government officials. “The process is in the final stage now.”

According to officials, the project was supposed to be completed in a phased manner (three phases). “We auctioned them (traders) the place after the Module A was fully completed. This does not happen in case of other malls,” he says. Apparently the cost for second phase is very high and since it is the SDA itself that bears the expense, the traders had been issued notices asking them to clear their liabilities to the tune of Rs 11.38 crores on account of premium excluding the Rs 55 lakhs outstanding amounts they owe to SDA as rentals. They were supposed to deposit 50 percent of their premium before liquidating the rest of arrears through instalments after every three months. “But they haven’t,” the official says. “Since the Multiplex comes in the second phase, how can we start the construction when a huge amount is still pending with them?”

The Hindered Journey

In one instance, traders’ body made a request for fixing an impaired fountain placed inside the building compound of Module A. “The SDA simply dismantled it, bizarrely citing ‘facilitation of public movement’ as reason,” Yusuf says.

But officials at the SDA thrashed his claims citing their appeals to then State Minister Nawang Rigzin Jora requesting him to remove the fountain as “it obscured the façade of their shops.”

For getting every new problem corrected, the traders body’s head had to drop a requisition with Estates office which allegedly passed from one table to another, often taking years before action is finally taken. To overcome the hassles, a proposal was mooted according to which, a committee – comprising three members from the trader body and three from SDA – would be set up to solve these issues on fast-track basis. The aim was to create a single window system, Yusuf says. Though initially, the SDA reportedly expressed interest but within months the VC was changed. “It didn’t take any follow up after that,” he grieves.

The officials say the committee could not make any headway as it was decided that all Terms and Conditions must be agreeable to both sides but the shopkeepers did not show up thereafter allegedly because “they aren’t even the legitimate allottees at first place.” To become a legitimate allottee, SDA had asked them to sign the Lease Agreement, which they allegedly haven’t till date.

The second issue was of electricity. The SDA still owns up to 40 percent of the property in Common Area while shopkeepers in total hold 60 percent. In the agreement, it was to be decided how the capital to pay for the electricity would be generated. “We told them we would pay for our area and you pay for yours,” he says.

The SDA had also requested them to sign an agreement with the Power Development Department (PDD) so that electricity charges are slashed by around Rs 70,000. In the current mode, the SDA pays the electricity and since it is a government body, PDD charges more. “If these people would have made agreement with PDD, it would have charged them less because they have different rates for private bodies. But they won’t since they know SDA would pay in their stead,” the official says in a fit of anger.

Sangarmaal-Complex-kioskThe officials also disclosed that in the second round of auctioning, most attendants were the same who appeared in first one. “If our property was not sellable as they have been alleging, why did they participated for second time again?” he asks.

The SDA says that under the terms and conditions of the project, it was the society that was en-tasked to oversee maintenance, security and sanitation. “But still we are doing it for them,” officials say. The cost of maintenance is always borne by the occupant and not by the provider but even today, from the last 5 years SDA is constantly incurring monthly expenditure of Rs 2.38 lakhs as against Rs 1 lakh we collect as rentals, they said.

But many shopkeepers and some former officials of the SDA who spoke to Kashmir Life hurl the ball in the court of SDA.  The “apathy”, many believe, is mainly because the position of vice chairman of SDA – that saw nine heads change since 2010 – has become a “transit camp.”

“The problem is that Srinagar Development Board has been non-serious about the development of the city,” says a former senior SDA official. “The negligence can be gauged from the very simple fact that Board may have hardly convened meetings just 4 – 5 times in last five years.”

The SDA, while rubbishing the allegations, maintains that it was only on 11th of last month that the last meeting was held. The officials, meanwhile, also justified the issue of VC’s not doing enough sometimes but admitted that their frequent transfers is a problem. “When a new VC is appointed, they are not acquainted with the issues first and when they happen to just start understanding them, they get transferred.”

Nothing can substantiate the pathology of situation better than story of Sheikh Faisal, the current owner of Food Court. Faisal’s uncle bought the space for almost a crore. Soon after it was thrown open, Faisal saw his costumers hurrying back out as they couldn’t withstand the scorching heat inside his restaurant. All his ice creams melted away and food items turned stale. Reason? The ceiling of the room had been made up of the optical glass – 16 mm thick polycarbonate sheets – that produced Green House effect leading to an intense buildup of heat. “The heat was so much that my mother fainted due to stroke,” Faisal says.

When Faisal scrambled to install an Air Conditioner, he found that wiring of the space wasn’t conducive enough for an AC. “This wasn’t meant to be a Food Court at first place,” he says. Faisal had allegedly been handed over a place that was supposed to be a passageway between Module A and the Craft Bazaar. SDA had allegedly improvised a glass ceiling and auctioned the place as Food Court. “We were duped,” Faisal says, solemnly.

Even though observers call it an “architectural fault”, Prof Sharat Das who laid out project design dismisses the allegation. “I did what I was told to do,” says Das.

Officials at the helm, however, dismissed the allegations. They say that the space was designed as Food Court on the preliminary design as well. “Yes the roofing is indeed made of polycarbonate, but there are countless other malls across India where restaurants have such roofing. The owner was supposed to fix an AC,” they say, rubbishing the “theory” that wiring isn’t conducive. “The passageway is separated from Food Court by a glass-vault. The said owner had inspected the place for two months before buying it from us. He knew it from the beginning that it had particular roofing. No one in today’s world is willing to dole out even Rs 5 for free, to say nothing about crores.”

The Food Court wears a gloomy look now. The tables and chairs are dust-laden. Manual labours and brick masons are at work. Having invested so much capital into the start-up and wary that an embarrassment would come if business was left half way through, Faisal decided against giving up. He replaced glass ceiling with Aluminum Composite Panel (ACP) roofing and reconstructed the previously crammed kitchen area at his own expenses.

The Way Ahead

Many aggrieved shop-owners who spoke to Kashmir Life simply demanded that SDA pay back their money. “When you go to a mall, you are expected to find a variety of recreational facilities especially entertainment package like multiplex or gaming zone. This mall simply lacks it. How do we expect the footfall?” Yusuf asks. “We made huge investments believing in their (SDA) promises. New CM has vowed to acquire 8 kanals of land from Estates. Let’s hope he keeps his promise.”

Clarifying its stand on the issue, SDA officials said that under vice-chairmanship of Saleem Shishgar, the shop-keepers had been asked to relinquish the shops if they were not content. “But none of them did,” officials say. “Instead, some of them rushed to buy more space apart from one or two shops they already owned in the Complex.”

Many businessmen like Yusuf say that SDA needs to become proactive in its approach to attract visitors and set up exhibitions to increase footfall. “Few years ago when Farooq Renzu was the VC, an exhibition of antique Kashmiri articles was organized, a whopping 20,000 people visited that day. We want SDA to organize such exhibitions again,” says another shop-owner. But SDA claims that they played their part more than they were supposed to. “We have already organized many exhibitions and music shows in the mall even though we were not supposed to do that. What did they do?” one official adds.

“Look at other malls in Srinagar, despite less or no publicity at all, they are still running successfully,” an engineer with the SDA said. “That’s because they have roped in big brands and their marketing strategy is robust. They issue advertisements and as a result more people visit.” The officials say that SDA had also told the traders to fuse two or three small shops to make a big one so that big brands are wooed. “Even shops that are already big are lying vacant, let alone the smaller ones.” In Sangarmaal, interjects another official, many businesses offer sub-standard goods and sell them at exorbitant prices, besides they don’t advertise themselves as briskly as they should. “Their standard isn’t at par with what must be offered in a mall,” he says.

Sheikh Imran, who heads the Kehwa Group of Industries, believes the condition of mall can be revived given the administration exhibits some sense of seriousness. “The SDA needs to empower the shopkeeper association,” he says.  “For every small issue, shopkeepers have to rush to SDA and keep requesting. But once they are empowered to some extent, they would be able to bypass the official red tape and execute certain issues on fast-track.”

Imran also suggested that authority should outsource that management to private companies. “See in Select Citywalk, the mall on festivals like Christmas and Eid is adorned in line with the occasion, but Sangarmaal, in comparison, looks bland. We need to have a kind of management which knows how to pull off these things,” he says.

Back at the mall, the ambience looks melancholic. Barely four or five people are frequenting the shops inside complex. The escalators get coaxed into motion when people draw close enough, triggering sensory mechanism. Many parts of mall looks spick and span though. “This place looks very desolate,” says one visitor. “The only thing I liked is ice cream of Baskin Robbins,” she adds with a grin.

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